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Japanese Handicrafts: Noh Shozoku – Theatrical Costumes

I have been touring Japan photographing craftspeople and artisans for my upcoming book to be published by Gestalten this year (out next month, preorder here!!). In total I managed to photograph some 70 artisans, all of them wonderful, however due to space constraints in the book not all of them were able to make it into the final cut.

I plan to introduce some of the ones that we unfortunately couldn’t include here, so I hope you’re in the mood to learn about some crafts!

One of the most demanding and expensive types of garment produced in Nishijin also requires one of the most flexible approaches.

Kyoto’s Nishijin is home to many of Japan’s finest textile weavers, however one of the most demanding jobs in terms of quality would have to be the production of Noh Shozoku, or costumes for Noh theatre. An extremely rare type of craft, Noh costumes have similarities to kimono but also include a great deal of other types of garment in order to depict every different type of character ranging from young to old, beautiful to vengeful, human to supernatural. This wide range of costuming requirements depends upon an equally rich repertoire of weaving techniques – something only the most technically proficient workshops can provide. Sasaki Yoji’s Noh Costuming workshop is one of very few that can fill these orders in Japan. 

While the mask of a Noh actor is a powerful, transformative theatrical aid, it is the many-layered, wide-shouldered costumes that give the actors their ponderous, larger-than-life presence on stage. Starting with the garment called karaori, which is the most emblematic of Noh costumes, modern day Noh Shozoku are known for their sumptuous, bold and intricate designs featuring many colors and liberal use of gold and silver string. It wasn’t always this way however – initial Noh costumes were simple samurai wear or court garments. It was in the Edo period that Noh gained the full patronage of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the daimyos – feudal lords – were expected to sponsor costume production and and fund Noh performing troupes. Then with the Meiji Revolution (1868) and the subsequent dissolution of the shogunate, the patronage Noh enjoyed disappeared, leaving actors, mask carvers and costumers very short of work.

Despite this climate, Sasaki’s grandfather opened his workshop in 1898, and shortly after that Noh regained financial support of the Imperial Government. ‘There used to be Noh actors everywhere, and costume workshops were much more common,’ says Sasaki-san. ‘Now, the only real places left are in Kyoto.’ The current location has been in operation since 1934 and employs twelve people who handle all steps from operating the Jacquard looms to sewing the completed panels together. Sasaki-san’s job is to consult with the Noh theatrical troupe and elicit their needs: what play do they need costumes for, what does the lead actor have in mind, and so on. As the costumes play a large role in denoting what kind of character is being played, some conventions such as colors and patterns must be observed, but the rest can be designed freely. Given the expense and effort involved in making these garments, these decisions are extremely important. 

The Sasaki workshop produces 50-100 karaori – or kimono for main actors – a year. This is in addition to the dozens of other types of  garment used in a single play by the side actors, all of which require different construction. Sasaki-san thinks that the reason they have been able to thrive is because of the team of artisans employed at his place. ‘It doesn’t matter how skilled one person is – for jobs this big you need a certain level of organization to create costumes in a reasonable amount of time.’

Each artisan is consummately skilled in their own specialization – for example the exorbitantly decorated karaori coats worn by the main actors features hand-woven brocades that are so luxuriant and three-dimensional that they are often mistaken for embroideries. Other types of garment, for example the mizugoromo, are translucent, rough-woven overgarments that use extremely thin string to denote a threadbare or dilapidated look. This material is produced on a regular loom with horizontal weft purposely set in a random wave pattern against the warp. The result is a gossamer, ephemeral looking kimono that looks just like its namesake: water garment.

Visitors to the Sasaki workshop will also find a small showroom in the front of the property that displays some of the works produced there, but also several items from a line of goods that Sasaki-san has been working on in his spare time. ‘I literally started it when I had nothing else to do,’ he says with a smile. The brand, ROSA, is a series of handbags, wallets, change purses and so on, made out of special silk woven textiles only found in Noh costumes. While they fetch designer prices, one can be assured of the craftsmanship, history and uniqueness from buying from these very special artisans. 

Japanese Crafts: Gold Leaf/Kinpaku

I have been touring Japan photographing craftspeople and artisans for my upcoming book to be published by Gestalten this year (out next month, preorder here!!). In total I managed to photograph some 70 artisans, all of them wonderful, however due to space constraints in the book not all of them were able to make it into the final cut.

I plan to introduce some of the ones that we unfortunately couldn’t include here, so I hope you’re in the mood to learn about some crafts!

The incandescent beauty of many Japanese national treasures and temples are due to the application of gold leaf. Kanazawa produces 99% of it. 

The kanji for Kanazawa translates literally to ‘Gold Marsh’, an extremely accurate designation for a city that produces 99% of all domestic gold leaf. It is a staple craft industry in the country, with many other crafts being reliant on it to exist. Kimono, architecture, sculptor, lacquerware amongst some use kinpaku – Japanese hammered gold leaf – on a daily basis. One of the most recognizable Kyoto landmarks, the shimmering Kinkaku-ji or Golden Pavilion, is covered over every square inch with Kanazawa kinpaku, and restoration every few decades relies on its production. 

Kanazawa seems to regard its own status as the premier producer of gold leaf with a self-aware, tongue-in-cheek attitude. Almost any food or beverage that can be garnished with gold leaf will get the kinpaku treatment, including coffee, ice-cream and sake. Cosmetics and other beauty products such as facial masks will contain gold leaf, and conspicuously, many interiors including restrooms are liberally covered with kinpaku. 

Kanazawa’s history with gold is long and tumultuous. Earliest records of official production start in 1593, when the Lord Maeda of the Kaga clan ordered his territories to begin producing it to decorate the weapons of his soldiers. The era of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu sought to put an end to this production in order to consolidate the wealth of his country in his two power bases of Tokyo (then known as Edo) and Kyoto. Unbeknownst to him, the Kaga clan secretly continued kinpaku production in clandestine workshops, while simultaneously pouring money into the development of other crafts such as Kaga Yuzen and Kutaniyaki. In the waning years of the Tokugawa shogunate, the Kaga clan reacquired the license to produce gold leaf in 1864, and the industry has grown to what it is today.

Yamane Tsutomu

‘A one kilogram ingot of gold will make roughly forty-thousand sheets of gold leaf,’ says Yamane Tsutomu, at 38 year veteran of kinpaku production who has achieved Master Artisan status. His company Hakuichi is one of the larger companies involved with kinpaku production, with direct channels for architecture and design, as well as producing many traditional gold-plated items in-house with its own team of artisans. It is a company that is invested in producing gold leaf on an industrial scale, however many of the steps involved still require a hands-on approach by a skilled craftsman such as Yamane-san. 

The process of turning a block of gold into thin slices starts with few surprises – the ingot is first melted into molten gold by placing it in a furnace for roughly twenty minutes at 1300 degrees celsius. The liquid is poured into a mold to harden, and then the gold block is passed through a machine roller several dozens of times to stretch out and thin the metal incrementally. While seeming like a tedious operation from the outside, Yamane-san personally does this by hand, explaining that it is important for the gold strip to be stretched to a width of roughly 6 centimetres for the next step.

After this process, the gold is a long strip resembling cooking foil in texture. This belt is then cut into squares and placed in between sheets of kinpaku uchigami – a very special type of paper that is an essential tool for handling gold leaf. Made from high quality washi in the soft waters of Kanazawa, kinpaku uchigami is dipped in a solution of egg, persimmon tannin and ash before having had its fibres methodically crushed and flattened in order to become extremely flat and dense. These properties are absolutely necessary in order to prevent stray microscopic fibres of the paper from adhering to the thin gold leaf, ripping it apart. In addition, uchigami is also extremely well suited to soaking up excess oil on the gold that would hinder its purity and quality. Interestingly, this paper is popular amongst maiko – apprentice geisha – as a blotting paper to remove oil from their skin, and Hakuichi has recently begun selling them commercially for that exact purpose. 

The squares of gold foil, now ensconced in the uchigami is then subjected to several rounds of beating and stretching via a hydraulic hammer. At each interval, the gold is recut into successively larger squares while getting steadily thinner. The target thinness for Japanese gold leaf is a staggering 0.0001 millimeters, or 100 nanometers. At this level of thinness, the gold leaf is incredibly fragile and liable to stick to anything at the slightest contact. Even the slightest breeze or spark of static electricity is enough to cause a sheet to tear. 

Specialized craftspeople must transfer these gossamer sheets from the uchigami to a new set of paper to be cut into final squares for delivery. Using bamboo chopsticks due to their static-free nature, the craftsperson swiftly pinches a corner of the leaf, and carefully so as not to let the kinpaku fold over and stick to itself, moves it over to the new paper, settling it into place with gentle puffs of air from one’s mouth. It’s a mind-bogglingly delicate task that must be done hundreds of times in a row; no machine or robot arm is even close to being sophisticated enough to perform this task. 

The gold leaf needs to be handled with a commensurate amount of skill by the artisans who use it. At thirty-three years of age, Miyagi Satomi is one of the youngest gold leaf artisans at Hakuichi, but with fifteen years experience under her belt, she is one of the best. ‘At first it was almost impossible to get the kinpaku to do what I wanted,’ she admits. Gilding a wooden box, she snaps her bamboo chopsticks against the corner of the gold leaf paper to curl it up a little, before floating the kinpaku over and letting it settle into place. Excess kinpaku is brushed off and carefully recovered, and the result a shining golden box which will be patterned and decorated by a lacquer artisan. One of the boxes gilded by Miyagi was presented by Prime Minister Abe to the incumbent American President during the 2017 U.S Japan summit. Miyagi is modest about this achievement. ‘I always wanted to be an artisan from a young age,’ she said. ‘I’m from Kanazawa so it’s not surprising that I ended up working with gold I guess.’

Japanese Handicrafts: Kinu Ito – Silk Strings

I have been touring Japan photographing craftspeople and artisans for my upcoming book to be published by Gestalten this year (out next month, preorder here!!). In total I managed to photograph some 70 artisans, all of them wonderful, however due to space constraints in the book not all of them were able to make it into the final cut.

I plan to introduce some of the ones that we unfortunately couldn’t include here, so I hope you’re in the mood to learn about some crafts!

It goes without saying that the strings of musical instruments are an important factor in the quality of sound they produce. Before modern advancements, Western instruments used animal gut for their stringed instruments whereas traditionally Japanese instruments such as the shamisen were strung with pure silk. With the recent advent of nylon strings there are very few workshops left in Japan that produce silk strings, and only one town where the silk is also locally harvested. The small town of Ooto, Shiga prefecture, is a window into this fascinating process.

According to Mieko Tsukuda, at one time 70 to 80% of the houses in Ooto, Shiga, were silk farming workshops. Now there is only her workshop left, a small building nestled amongst rice fields and old farmhouses. ‘The other places lacked heirs to carry on the business, and eventually closed’, she says. As for Mieko, she’s the fourth generation heir to the Tsukuda workshop. At 67, she is a lively and gregarious presence, however her legs are starting to feel the strain, sidelining her from most silk harvesting work. ‘We really ought to find a new heir for the job soon,’ she says.

The small town of Ooto was known as a silk making area from as far back as the Heian era (794-1185), having been blessed with pure fresh meltwater from Mt. Shizugatake nearby. The water, which is collected at the base of the mountain and delivered to the workshop specially by truck, is said to be the reason why Ooto silk has such a pure shiny white lustre, as well being soft yet tensile – a must for musical instruments. 

The workshop is staffed by six women, four of whom sit at zaguriki, a special station filled with apparatus for retrieving the silk. The process gives off a distinct odor, which suffuses the entire facility. Twenty five cocoons at a time are submerged in water heated to 75 degrees celsius to soften the silk – and then the workers have to find the end of the string in order to unravel it. It’s a mind bogglingly delicate task that involves using a special brush made out of dried rice stalks to tease apart the threads until the loose end is found. The twenty five threads are combined and spun together to form a single genshi, or base thread, which is fed onto a spinning contraption for storage. This work is only performed in June through July, once the silkworms have spun their spring cocoons, and the yield for the season is around eighty kilograms of pure silk. 99% of this product is sent down the road to Hashimoto Marusan, one of the only silk string makers in Japan.

Located just a few kilometers away, the Hashimoto Marusan factory was founded in Meiji 41 and has been making strings for musical instruments ever since. ‘Silk strings are a special property of Japanese instruments, but recently we’ve gotten a lot of recognition in China. Our strings are suitable for their harps, and so our international client base has grown since 2000’, says Mr. Hashimoto, the 5th generation president of the company. 

The silk base threads from Tsukuda are brought into the Hashimoto factory, where they go through roughly 19 processes in order to be transformed into strings. The bundles are firstly cut to length and then weighed to make sure precisely the right amount of silk goes into each string. The threads are then spun together while being liberally doused with water, helping them stretch without snapping. After dyeing the string yellow with a natural pigment derived from ginseng, the strings are boiled in a pot of rice mochi to increase their tensile strength. 

In order to ensure the strings dry to their core, they must be stretched out over a 25 meter long hallway and suspended by hooks. The strings, having never been extended to this length before, creak and groan but never snap. It’s an extremely strenuous process that taxes the workers, who sometimes slip on the water being strained out of the newly wrung strings. Left to dry, they are then hand-inspected along their full length, with the workers delicately trimming at any bumps and knots to make sure they are of uniform girth. A coating of glue then ensures the strings will not come apart mid-performance. 

The silk strings of Hashimoto Marusan are beloved by musicians across the world for their warm sound and full resonance. The small town of Ooto is the only place left in Japan with the industry to produce 100% pure silk strings entirely domestically, and certainly one of the only places in the world left continuing to do so on a commercial scale. The limited nature of the strings has lent their brand an air of exclusivity, and both Tsukuda and Hashimoto believe that there are still untapped markets in the west for the proliferation of these gorgeous handmade strings.

Japan Handicrafts: Koto – Japanese Harp

I have been touring Japan photographing craftspeople and artisans for my upcoming book to be published by Gestalten this year (out next month, preorder here!!). In total I managed to photograph some 70 artisans, all of them wonderful, however due to space constraints in the book not all of them were able to make it into the final cut.

I plan to introduce some of the ones that we unfortunately couldn’t include here, so I hope you’re in the mood to learn about some crafts!

The koto, or Japanese harp, is a large instrument in addition to being extremely demanding on performers. Traditional kotos were instruments of the court and the nobility, and were set on the floor where musicians would kneel to perform. It is equally comfortable with being a solo instrument as well as being part of an ensemble. With a standard complement of thirteen strings (or more, for modern iterations), the virtuosity required of the performers is staggering, however the bewitching tone of the plucked strings is unlike any other in the repertoire of Japanese musical instruments.

This sentiment was shared by the daimyo of the Fukuyama clan, Mizuno Katsunari, whose fiefdom occupied an eastern part of modern day Hiroshima Prefecture. After establishing his castle in 1622, he encouraged his samurai caste and female townsfolk alike in the  study of artistic pursuits, especially music and song. The area, now known as Fukuyama city, became a major manufacturing hub for koto. This industry was further boosted with one of the koto’s most skilled virtuoso being born in Fukuyama – a musician named Kuzuhara Koutou who helped put Fukuyama on the map as the go-to town for koto in Japan. At the peak of the industry in the 1970s, koto production in Fukuyama reached a high of 30,000 units a year. That number has since fallen to 3000 a year, although this still accounts for 70% of the national share of the Japanese market. 

Fujii Yoshiaki, born in 1943, has been making koto for over sixty years in Fukuyama. Finishing junior high school and faced with few career options, he originally joined a local koto company that was geared towards mass production of the instruments. Leaving the company at the age of twenty-one, he started his own business with an emphasis on maintaining the hand-crafted aspects of koto production. ‘Koto used to be mainly an indoor instrument,’ says Fujii-san. ‘Nowadays it’s not strange to have live performances outdoors, so I’ve been experimenting with ways of increasing the sound output of my products.’ 

The first step is one of the most crucial – choosing the wood for the body of the instrument. Fujii-san exclusively uses kiri – paulownia wood – from Aizu, in Fukushima Prefecture. ‘Aizu is cold, so the trees grow slower but with denser wood and smaller spaces between annual rings, which makes for a richer sound.’ Other criteria is stringently checked before selection – the burls, knots, curvature and grain direction – anything that could affect the sound of the resulting instrument is considered. Selected logs are cut into the rough shape and left to dry outdoors for one to three years. Through rain and shine, this natural seasoning hardens the wood and prevents warping in later years, as well as leaches tannins from the wood. 

Using a large selection of specialized kanna woodplanes, Fujii-san then carves the shell of the koto into a smooth curved shaped, before hollowing out the interior and shaving away excess wood that would dampen sound vibrations. Near the end of this process, an intricate beveling technique is performed on the inside surface of the koto shell, which is purported to help improve the sound quality of the instruments. Fujii-san uses a variety of nomi – wood chisels – to carve out a pattern called ayasugi inside the shell, which is extremely delicate work. A resonating board is then glued to the back of the shell before being tied up, with wedges hammered into the rope to make sure it seals properly. 

Following this, a technique unique to Fukuyama koto is performed called yaki, in which the wooden body is scorched with a red hot iron block in order to bring the fine details of the wood grain to the surface. The wood, which is initially burnt nearly black, is polished later to bring out the deep lustrous brown color that Fukuyama koto are known for. The body of the koto is more or less complete at this stage, and it must now be decorated as befitting an instrument for the stage. Inlays of Indian red pine are fitted, and designs are drawn on in lacquer. Fukuyama koto are said to be the finest examples of the instrument produced in Japan, and are the only musical instrument to have been recognized as a traditional craft by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. 

‘It’s a difficult instrument in many regards,’ say Fujii-san. ‘Not only to play, but simply just attaching the strings and tuning is beyond the abilities of most players. It would be nice to innovate the koto to lower the barrier for beginners. ’ Fujii-san is thoughtful as he considers the future of the koto. ‘The thing is, if you change a beloved instrument like this too much, then you risk angering the people who want to keep it as a traditional instrument. It’s an interesting dilemma.’ 

BOSS Coffee Campaign for ANZ

BOSS Coffee billboard in Sydney

Late last year I was contacted by Peter Grasse, the man behind Mr Positive, a fantastic production agency helping overseas clients to set up shoots in Japan and Korea. He wanted to know if I was available to do a shoot for the launch of BOSS Coffee in the Australian and New Zealand region. I was of course stoked for the opportunity and said yes straight away.

BOSS Coffee is an ubiquitous can coffee brand here in Japan, quite well known for its domestic ad campaigns starring Tommy Lee Jones as an alien (it’s very hard to explain). I’m quite a fan of the BOSS Rainbow Blend if I am on assignment somewhere in the countryside and need a quick sugar and caffeine hit to get my head in the game. Owned by Suntory, BOSS Coffee ventured a new product line into the Australian/NZ market – both very well known for extremely high standards of coffee.

The pitch was, BOSS Coffee is the beverage that gets Japanese people through their extremely hectic day. Peter, myself and the ad agency Clemenger BBDO Sydney put our heads together to come up with a few scenes that immediately screamed Tokyo. Needless to say, Shibuya crossing came up early and stuck. After examining and discarding various other possibilities the second scenario imagined an old lady holding down a busy and packed izakaya…like a boss.

The location scout and shoot day went off without a hitch – I was shooting stills and also jumped in to handle the lighting for the video component, which was handled by the very competent Andy Nagashima and Anna Hashimoto of Cutting Edge Tokyo. Above and below you can see some alternate layouts that didn’t make the cut, as well as some outtakes from the day.

The talent was an absolute joy to work with in both scenarios! Such a pleasure working with an amazing international team to bring it all together in one short afternoon. Special thanks must go to Brian Masato Kobo from Tokyo Colors, who originally passed my name on to Peter, as well.

Hanafubuki Ryokan for 1843 mag

Hanafubuki Ryokan is a super nice place to stay on the coast of the Izu peninsula. Izu is a beach and mountain paradise for hikers and surfers located about 30 minutes by bullet train west of Tokyo. Take a local train further down the east side of the peninsula for some of the more secluded, premium accommodation options, like Hanafubuki. I photographed this wonderful hot spring hideaway for 1843, the Economist’s lifestyle magazine last year.

My room. Absolutely gorgeous

Hanafubuki is not a single big hotel building, it’s rather a collection of smaller cottages linked together via wooden walkways. Its open air plan and proximity to the forests make it a great place to recharge after a grueling spell in the city. The air is beautiful, crisp and filled only with the sounds of nature, and there are some short forest walks adjoining the property that allows you to do some shinrinyoku, or ‘forest bathing’, which is a fancy way of saying you can sit by yourself in the unspoiled tranquility of nature for a bit. Don’t knock it until you try it though!

Taken while I was doing some forest bathing. Not bad at all.

The crown jewel in this amazing ryokan’s list of features however, is most definitely the seven separate open air baths scattered throughout the property. Each bath is distinct in its own way and best of all, they are all private, meaning you don’t have to share your precious bathing time with other patrons. Shy bathers rejoice! In my time there I was lucky enough to go around to all of them to photograph them, and even managed to take a dip in two. Marvelous!

In addition to the ryokan, the coast of the Izu peninsula is a mere five minutes walk away, and if you want to really do some forest bathing, wake up at 5am to get down there for the sunrise. It’s worth it (although it won’t feel that way at first).

I also took my newly acquired drone down there to capture the coast from above, and the landscape was absolutely stunning. A must for hikers, anglers and off-road cyclists.

Overall, my time spent at Hanafubuki Ryokan really left me with a warm feeling that Japan’s under-appreciated regional areas are extremely deserving of multiple trips. Check out their website here if you want to visit.

Japanese Handicrafts – Hagoita

A few years ago I photographed Mr Nishiyama, a hagoita artisan in his Tokyo workshop.

Nishiyama Kogetsu’s workshop makes hagoita – decorative paddles meant to bring good luck to Japanese households. The workshop is on the second floor of his Tokyo home, where there are two work tables. Nishiyama-san’s father occupied the other one until he passed away – now he continues the tradition alone with no apprentice to take up the workload. 

Kogetsu Nishiyama sits at his workbench. To the right of the frame there is a picture of Nishiyama’s recently deceased father, who was his teacher and colleague. If one is lucky with their timing, Nishiyama can be seen in Tokyo Skytree doing live demonstrations of his craft, and his workshop doubles as a mini exhibition space.

Hagoita are in effect paddles for an ancient game called hanetsuki, which was a very early form of badminton. With a history as far back as the Eikyo era (1429-1441), hanetsuki was enjoyed by members of the Japanese aristocracy as a New Year’s diversion. Shaped like a wooden trapezoid with a handle, there was plenty of space to add decorations, which started out as pictures painted directly onto the wood. 

The paddles became more and more complicated as artisans strove to outdo each other, and on entering the Edo period (1603 – 1863), the idea of using fabric collage with cotton padding became de rigueur, as a way of adding three-dimensionality to these items which were now more decorative than sporting. 

These days, the main motifs adorning hagoita are traditionally renderings of famous Kabuki actors frozen in a famous scene, or Furisode bijin – beautiful kimono-wearing ladies. In the heydays of Kabuki’s peak popularity, the actors most often depicted on hagoita was a barometer of who was popular that particular year. They were popular collectors items for the diehard fans of Kabuki.

The Nishiyama workshop is located in the Sumida district of Tokyo, inside a two story building. The first floor is something of a mini-museum dedicated to Hagoita, and visitors are free to stop in and admire the works that the two generations of Nishiyamas have produced over the years.  ‘My father and I used to split up the jobs,’ says Nishiyama-san. ‘One of us would paint the faces and the other would do the collage.’ Nishiyama-san’s father, who passed away in 2014, taught him the craft. ‘Being born into the house of an artisan made it seem very normal to me,’ says Nishiyama-san. ‘I would help out my father doing odd jobs as a kid.’ It was in his last year of high school that Nishiyama-san decided to follow his father’s path. ‘He apprenticed me to a hagoita master in Kawasaki, where I tried making them for the first time. After four days I returned home and my father took me as his apprentice.’

What followed were hard days of waking up at 6:30 to clean, starting construction at 8 and finishing at 10 in the evening. Painting the faces, designing and implementing new kimono collages, making the hair out of silk threads, all of it was knowledge to be absorbed, passed on from a demanding teacher. 

‘It was an interesting time to be an artisan,’ Kogetsu, recalls. A national resurgence in interest in traditional crafts gave Nishiyama-san and his contemporaries opportunities to be seen and recognized for their extraordinary achievements. Department stores invited craftspeople to do live demonstrations, and customers were able to see the faces behind the products for the first time. ‘Seeing my father’s life work get recognition was encouragement to me as well,’ Nishiyama-san remembers. Along with his father they performed demonstrations in Nice, Los Angeles and New York in the 80’s and early 90’s. 

Nowadays, Nishiyama-san performs all of the work by himself, and creates hagoitas ranging in size from 18cm to 75cm long. ‘I was never any good with my hands, but I’ve managed to learn it all,’ he says. Creating a hagoita involves working with a variety of different materials. Nishiyama-san’s desk is covered with faces that he has laboriously painted, which he will then dress in kimono silk before affixing it to the board. ‘Technique and skill is important in making hagoita, but that on its own is not enough,’ he says. ‘Kabuki, ukiyo-e, samurai lore etcetera are things that an artisan must be familiar with in order to create items that will ring true to its heritage.’ 

Currently he doesn’t have an apprentice or the desire to take one on, but he’s not worried for the future of hagoita. ‘One of my favorite things as a boy was helping out my father at the hagoita market, in Asakusa,’ he says, referring to the December festival held at Asakusa’s famed Sensoji Temple. ‘Looking at all the different hagoita made by so many different craftsmen there was a big influence on my life.’

Nanbu Tekki (Iron Kettle) artisans

My book on traditional crafts in Japan – Handmade in Japan, published by Gestalten, will be out in September this year (hopefully – this covid thing is keeping everyone on their toes), so I thought I would share some of the crafts that I had photographed but for one reason or the other could not be included in the book. Originally the book was slated to run at under 300 pages but we ended up extending it to 340 pages and there still wasn’t enough space for all of the awesome crafts in Japan.

Nanbu Tekki is the kettle you want. It is a solid cast iron piece that – according to tea experts from China to London – apparently makes the water boiled inside very delicious, due to an infusion of iron into the water. Nanbu Tekki is of course handmade and very time consuming, requiring clay and sand molds to be created before a specialized craftsman presses an intricate design into it. The clay mold for the spout and body are combined before it is baked dry.

Molten iron is then poured into the cast, which was delightful to photograph. The heat of the molten iron was enough in some cases to cause the casts to spontaneously catch on fire, however the young artisans in charge were clearly unfussed, handling the barrels as calmly as you or I would pour a cup of milk. After the casting the kettle is baked in charcoal, which apparently creates an iron oxide layer on the surface, which is why the kettles are resistant to rust.

These photos were taken at the Iwachu factory in Morioka city, however there are dozens of medium to small-sized workshops producing these highly coveted pieces of kitchenware. Some of the more popular bespoke places have years of orders ahead of them to fill. These tanky kettles and teapots will be in your family for generations, provided you take good care of them.

Street Photography For Shiseido

Early last year I was very lucky to do a quick gig with Japanese makeup giant Shiseido for their online global content. The job itself had very little to do with makeup – in fact the shoot was more about capturing the feel of Tokyo’s most upscale neighborhood Ginza. It was an absolute delight to spend a chilly but sunny February afternoon people watching and shooting photos on my Leica, and for a great company no less. Because it was to be used for promotional purposes on the web, the brief stipulated that no faces were to be recognizable, a no easy feat on a crowded Sunday afternoon but a fun limitation to shoot around.

Here is the link to the finished article on the web:

I thought I’d post up a selection of my personal favorites photos from the afternoon including ones that weren’t used.

Portraits from Japan – Hikakin

If you live in Japan, there’s a good chance you know about Hikakin. He’s Japan’s #1 Youtuber by a long shot, appealing to younger audiences with his zany humor, personal style and videogame playthroughs.

I had the opportunity to photograph his portrait recently for Forbes Japan. It was a quick shoot – maybe only ten minutes or so, but luckily I had the interview to plan my approach and lighting. When he jumped in front of the camera he quickly proved to be personable and cooperative, putting on a show for the camera.

The only backdrop available was a green screen in this empty studio in the depths of Mori Tower in Roppongi. I felt the green screen worked thematically to show the somewhat manufactured nature of most Youtube stars’ lives, so I leaned into the idea and it turned out ok! Thank you Hikakin for being such a great sport!